Ffestiniog Railway: Queen of the Narrow Gauge


1. Porthmadog Quay 6. Blaenau
2. Quarry Engine 7. Fairlie's Patent
3. The Longest Grade 8. Downhill Run
4. On Dwyryd's Flank 9. Evening Chores
5. Deviation


Six: Blaenau


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Linda backs down
to the tall square
watertank at the
end of the Blaenau
We had hardly rolled to a stop at the Blaenau platform before Linda cut away from the cars.  After navigating the turnout at the far end of the platform, the trim little engine drifted back past the coaches and rolled quietly to a stop below a tall, square watertank.  There driver Paul Davis-- a generous fellow-- spelled the fireman from his proper task, and mounted the engine to refill the tank.  After pouring an astonishing volume of water into the big saddle tank, Paul finally hauled away the dripping hose and reset the cap over the fill hole.  Fireman and driver scrambled back on board, and then Linda set off down the track towards a distant turnout.  The backing move brought the crew back out onto the main behind the train, and then it was but a straight pull forward to make their coupling with the cars.  Brake tests and checking the running gear occupied a few moments, then all was in readiness for Linda to lead her carriages tender-first back down the hill.      


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The driver
provides a
well-earned drink.
Leaving Paul and Linda to complete the return journey without me, I set out to explore Blaenau. "Nothing in the world can be as gray as a gray day in Blaenau," German travel writer Peter Sager once said, and the truth of that lay glistening all around me under the persistent Welsh rain.  Gray houses with gray roofs huddled on gray streets under the gray sky, the whole of it bounded by towering gray mountains of broken slates.  From the dual-gauge train station a single high street led along the floor of the valley.  Narrow lanes of worker's cottages branched off to either side, running a block or two up or down the hillside until they fetched up hard against one of the piles of broken slag which surround the town on every side.  Up on the mountainsides one could still see the lines of the inclined planes, with ruined winch-houses standing gaunt at their summits.  The planes dropped down into the town and slashed brutally right across the streets-- I could only imagine the dust and the din as the loaded wagons were winched right past the worker's cottage doors.  Now abandoned and fenced off, they lay like military trenchlines cutting neighbor from neighbor.


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Pulling forward to
rejoin her train,
Linda is dwarfed
by the towering slate-tips. 

In its heyday a century ago, Blaenau was a town of 11,000 inhabitants, nearly all of whose lives depended on the slate trade.  18 pits directly employed some 4,000 quarrymen.  Every day except Sunday, they descended through dank tunnels down to the slate veins, where long galleries spread out along the face of the slate in great stepped terraces.  There the miners hung from chains against the working face, drilling holes and setting explosives.  After the charges were detonated, the loose slates were shoveled into wagons, which were then winched back up to the surface via subterranean inclined planes.  Up top the stones were split and dressed into standard sizes, while the rubble left behind-- six pounds of slag for every pound of finished slate-- was tipped into the great heaps which still gird the town. 


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Coming up to a
coupling at the
Blaenau platform.
Quarrying was dirty, dangerous work.  It was said that if the blasting didn't get a man, the choking slate dust would.  The fine powder accumulated in the lungs, leading to respiratory infections and silicosis-- Blaenau recorded some of the highest incidence rates of tuberculosis and pulmonary infections in all of Great Britain in the 1920s and 30s.  Yet when demand for slate was high and wages filled the men's pockets, Blaenau was a proud town.  Nonconformists to the core, Blaenau's mining families once supported 26 different chapels.  Reading clubs, fraternal orders, bands and the famous male choruses provided solace from the hard work of the mines.  And wages wrung from the rock passed on to the merchants, grocers and publicans whose establishments lined the high street.  The stores are still there, a veritable museum of small-town commerce from a bygone era-- a butcher's shop with cuts of fresh meat hanging in the window; a confectioners' with sweets set out in bins; and of course, the inevitable pubs with names like the "Miner's Arms."  Yet over most of them there hangs a tired air.  The slate trade has collapsed, and the mines are nearly all shuttered.  Today Blaenau's population is half what it was a century ago, and unemployment hovers around 18%.  It is a town of old men and women-- the young leave in droves, for there is no work to be had.


Before I left Blaenau I wanted one closer look at the famous commodity which had been this sad, proud town's blessing and curse.  A short hike up a street of low cottages brought me to the foot of the nearest slag pile.  The entire huge mound was wired off to prevent trespass, but broken slabs and fragments tumbled from the fencing to spill out across the sidewalk and into the edge of the lane.  I hefted a piece on my hand: it was heavier than it looked, with edges sharp enough to cut an unwary finger.  As I turned away, my camera slipped from my grasp.  With a thud and a tinkling sound, it smashed lens-first into the slates.  A five-dollar UV filter took the brunt of the blow, leaving the lens itself undamaged: all things considered, a cheap escape.  Even so, I felt as though I had been assessed a kind of toll.  It was not in Blaenau's nature to accept my gawking and my pity without exacting some small price for herself in return.



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All materials, images, text and presentation copyright 1998 Erik Gray Ledbetter.  See Terms of Use.